Yurie Nagashima, Self-Portraits

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Dashwood Books (here). Softcover (18.4 x 12 cm), 172 pages, with 140 color and black and white photographs. Includes an interview with the artist by Lesley A. Martin, translation by Akiko Ichikawa. Design by Charlotte de Mezamat. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Yurie Nagashima is one of the most significant contemporary female photographers in Japan. She earned early recognition, while still a student, for her quite radical nude portraits of her family. She was seen as part of a group of young female photographers who took provocative self-portraits and intimately photographed their domestic environments. Freely expressing themselves through photography, their work challenged the dominant male gaze and the so-called “hair-nude” trend of suggestive photographs of young women. At the time, the movement was derisively labeled as the onnanoko shashinka or “girl photography” by the Japanese photo critic Iizawa Kotaro. Today, many of the photographers who questioned the male-dominated industry have become its leading voices.

Over the years, Nagashima has published half a dozen photobooks and written articles discussing issues related to gender and feminism, and last year, she released a book titled “From Their Onnanoko Shashin To Our Girly Photo” looking back at the history of female photography in 1990s Japan and rewriting the history of the movement. 

Nagashima first put her self-portraits together for a show at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in 2017, where a selection of 600 images taken over a period of 24 years (from 1992 to 2016) was shown as a thirty-minute slide show. A tighter selection of this work was recently published in a photobook titled simply Self-Portraits.

Self-Portraits is a small and unassuming photobook. A portrait of young Nagashima is placed on the cover with a generous amount of white space around it. An interview by Lesley A. Martin of the Aperture Foundation serves as an introduction, setting the historical and cultural context for Nagashima’s photographs. Martin recalls her first trip to Japan in 1992, where she had moved to teach English. She ran into Nagashima’s self-portraits, and she remembers thinking “this was someone with something to say.” Decades later, the two women engage in an earnest conversation about the power of self-portraiture and the politics of looking.

In the book, the photographs are arranged in chronological order and printed full bleed, creating a continuous visual narrative. The first photograph is a black and white portrait of the artist as a young fierce woman, standing outside with a backpack looking straight into the camera. It is paired with a black and white image of what looks like a balcony. Her early photographs are blatant, raw, playful and defiant – there are shaved heads, cigarettes, nudity, and the energy of a young woman enjoying her life. In one photograph, she has short hair, ear and nose earrings, and a cigarette in her mouth, her squinting eye mimicking the punk cartoon character on her t-shirt. This photo is paired with a calmer one, where she sits naked in a lotus position on a mattress, holding a cigarette. 

Nagashima occasionally incorporates the camera trigger or mirrors in her photographs, emphasizing the staged environment of her setups. She observes and studies herself, and also shifts the power dynamic by taking full control over her representation. Nagashima says that a self-portrait is “a way of taking action against the historical roles of the male and female in photography.”

Later, there is a photo of Nagashima slouching on a sofa, wearing only underpants and a black leather jacket, with her pregnant belly taking the center of the frame. There is a cigarette in her mouth, and she is holding a camera trigger in one hand and showing us her middle finger with the other – it is a striking self-portrait of a confident woman in control of her body and representation. The photographs that follow reflect the changes in the artist’s life. Her son is now present in almost every photograph, as she reflects on her new role as a mother. There are no more nude shots, except a couple capturing her breasts. In one, Nagashima holds an onion covering her left breast as she holds the t-shirt up with her teeth. She says she “became more aware of feminist issues after having a child,” and in the final images, her son disappears and Nagashima looks more closely at her changing body.

A number of notable contemporary female photographers continue to explore and reclaim the female body: Talia Chetrit shares her vulnerability in Showcaller (reviewed here), Mari Katayama uses self-portraits to talk about her disabilities in Gift (reviewed here), and Rita Lino stages playful and provocative photographs in her book Entartete (reviewed here). Just like Nagashima, they use self-portraiture to challenge stereotypes in the representation of the female body, and to offer alternatives to male gaze.

Rather modest in its presentation, Self-Portraits fiercely claims the power of female representation and the female gaze. It is an excellent photobook. Seen together, these photographs show the artist’s life unfolding and changing, and at each stage, from her early years to transitioning into motherhood, she takes on different roles. Nagashima’s photographs actively deconstruct social gender identities, question power dynamics, and offer the beginnings of a new visual language, smartly resetting the photographic conversation in her native Japan and beyond. 

Collector’s POV: Yurie Nagashima is represented by Maho Kubota Gallery in Tokyo (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    So happy you reviewed this amazing photobook. One of my favorite books of 2020. Dashwood has put out some great books over the years but this is definitely one of my favorites.

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